Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Saturday, Aug 25, 2007


Physical comedy is officially dead, and Rowan Atkinson killed it. Well, not the actor himself, but with his inexcusable desire to keep destroying the reputation of his resplendent Mr. Bean with all manner of mediocre motion picture incarnations. That sunny British series, with its reverence for silent film funny business, was a class act of timing and treatment, using old school slapstick to illustrate an eccentric’s uneasy way in this button down, conformist cock-up called society. Now, on celluloid, he’s nothing more than crass kid fodder, a G-rated response to the parental cries of media inappropriateness. Once he was a mean spirited plank who saw the entire world as worthy of his slightly askew scorn – yes, even women and little children. But now he’s been transformed into a gangly, goofball Gamera, friend to everyone except the sideswiped member of the audience who didn’t see such a tiresome trainwreck coming.


Helmed by British TV director Steve Bendelack (proving that the UK boob tube can match its American counterpart in producing horrible hack auteurs) and written by actor Hamish McColl (with appropriate credit to Robin Driscoll for all the original series bits being stolen) Holiday offers very little that’s new. Bean – embodied by a rapidly aging Aktinson – repeats shtick from previous so-called ‘adventures’ while proving that new ideas are few and very, very far between. The story has our hapless hero winning a trip to the French Riviera. Along the way, he prevents an important Russian director from boarding a train to Cannes, befriends the man’s smart alecky son, and disrupts the set of American moviemaker Cason Clay’s (a lost Willem Dafoe) latest epic. He eventually makes it to the big time film festival, where more mindless hijinx (and a case of mistaken kidnapping) ensues.


Back in the days of Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, broad farce founded on the fragility of the human body was a cheap and effective means of making audiences laugh. Without the ability to used words and sounds, the visual element was crucial. That’s why writers would spend hours working up elaborate gags, recognizing that the viewer was relying on said set up and pay off for their entertainment value. In the post-Jazz Singer era however, only The Three Stooges managed to carry on the tradition. In their case, they merged recognizable types (the bully, the mensch, the idiot) and accented the byplay with equally emblematic noises (watch one of their shorts with the sound off and see how successful it is). Aktinson and Bean have none of this. At first, he was a novelty for mining this vast untouched vein of humor’s history. We laughed not only at the pratfall, but the audacity to attempt it in a post-modern media.


Blown up on a big screen, our loveable lox loses that framework. Because of the immediacy of cinema, the larger than life facets of a 50 foot tall screen, Bean’s basic stumble bum approach is lifeless. It lacks energy and verve, scuttled by Bendelack’s complete disregard for comedy basics. Examples abound, as when Mr. Bean constantly undermines a film set. The various ‘jokes’ utilized to establish the characters complete lack of regard are telegraphed so far in advance that there’s more suspense in when they’ll start than snickers once they arrive. Even more frustrating, Bean borrows a great deal from its British betters. Snippets of the classic Goon Show wit (especially circa Peter Sellers) are wedged into elements borrowed from Monty Python (silly walks, anyone). Add in some sloppy satire, including the obviously aimed at adults lampoon of pseudo-serious Hollywood dramas (personified by Dafoe’s self indulgent film) and you’ve got a grab bag of gunk.


So little works here in fact that you can actually count the effective sequences on one hand – maybe even a single finger. When our inconsiderate dope derails the young boy’s reunion with his dad, they wind up with a telephone number missing the final two digits. Bean’s solution? Call every possible combination of numbers until they find his father. These quick cut moments, various archetypal individuals answering their phones in all manner of blackout buffoonery, have a nice, nonsensical randomness that actually gets us to giggle. But then Bendelack does nothing with it. A long sequence of our hero hitchhiking goes nowhere, and when Bean arrives in Cannes, he becomes a prop in a more and more preposterous chase. Even bubbly actress Emma de Caunes is wasted as the good natured Sabine. She’s saucy Parisian pulchritude, that’s about it.


Now there will be voices vehemently opposed to such a harsh stance, arguing that this is nothing but good, clean, wholesome fun. The rarity of fare that the whole family can enjoy – or at the very least, tolerate – apparently usurps all other artistic considerations to these supporters. It’s part and parcel of the new marketing mindset, a dynamic where watchability equals worth. But even under such a lax standard, Mr. Bean’s Holiday fails. Jacques Tati, a fairly obvious influence, managed to transform his bump and scrape situations into some manner of high art, using both the material and the method of its presentation in tandem to illustrate the chuckle. Here, Bendelack believes that frequent forays into handheld digital dreariness (our dithering dimwit carries around a camcorder) will emphasize the “you are there” feeling. Unfortunately, it merely muddies an already ambiguous ideal. 


As an avant-garde notion of throwback homage, Mr. Bean’s Holiday is awfully cute. But it’s not funny or fresh. Its mixed message ideal of all ages appropriateness (the vast majority of the movie’s subtitled, oddly enough) lashed to a character that’s no longer a loveable louse renders the entire enterprise pointless. Fans of the original series will shudder at how soulless this all is, while anyone coming from the first film deserves this kind of dead-eyed sequel. Gearing everything to kids may make sense in light of the one off Mr. Bean animated show, but even those offered more imagination and sophistication that what’s offered here. And then there is Aktinson, a truly talented man who deserves much, much better. Anyone who has seen his work in Black Adder, or The Thin Blue Line can attest to that. Mr. Bean appears to be the legacy he can’t live down, an international nudge like Baldy Man or Dame Edna.


Yet none of these criticisms will matter in the end. The previous Bean outing was a huge worldwide hit, and the DVD became another in a long line of digital babysitters disconnected parents could use to safely keep the wee ones at bay. Holiday will be no different. It dives directly underneath the lowest common denominator to look for primordial approval, and even then it fails to generate much gregarious goodwill. While it’s inoffensive (unless you’re French) and even tempered (unless you’re America) it’s also dull, lifeless, and slack. Every once in a while, a movie comes along that has we critics scratching our head in ‘who demanded this’ confusion. Mr. Bean’s UK run ended more than a decade ago, and the first film came and went way back when President Clinton was still in residence at the White House (1997 to be exact). A great deal of silent era slapstick has only grown better with age. The exploits of Mr. Bean have vinegared.



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Friday, Aug 24, 2007


Though it’s still officially several weeks off, SE&L senses that fall is finally on the horizon. Sure, it’s still stifling outside, temperatures matching the amount of money your average Hollywood blockbuster rakes in, so it’s hard to get completely into that autumnal feeling. But the sad fact is that, within the next month, leaves will begin to turn and days will start getting shorter. Movies will also be transforming, shuffling away from popcorn pulp and into more awards baiting brashness. You can see the dichotomy clearer over the 25 August weekend. On Saturday night, you can see 2006’s winner for Best Picture, a highly publicized, Internet fueled horror romp, a sad scarefest, and an amazing indie experience featuring an Oscar worthy performance. In essence, it’s a lot like how September through December will look – a few amazing movies surrounded by varying degrees of cinematic support. If it’s not already part of your collection, do yourself a favor. Switch over to Cinemax on Saturday and see one of the decade’s best efforts. It’s certified SE&L sublime:


Premiere Pick
The Departed


As the illustrious LL Cool J once warned, don’t call it a comeback. Indeed, Martin Scorsese has not been hiding along the fringes of cinema, waiting for another certified gangster blockbuster to resurrect his implied lagging artistic credibility. Since his last film, The Aviator, was nominated for several Oscars, it seems silly to suggest that the certified American auteur is arriving from anywhere but the top. Besides, some of his best films – Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, The King of Comedy, The Last Temptation of Christ – have nothing to do with mean streets and goodfellas. This does not lesson the impact or import of this brilliant Boston crime drama – no one does operatic brutality better – but Scorsese is much more than movie mob boss. He doesn’t deserve such stereotyping. And besides, he finally got the industry recognition he’s so richly deserved. Comeback? More like a stand down. (25 August, Cinemax, 10PM EST)

Additional Choices
Snakes on a Plane


One of last year’s most debated films finally arrives on the small screen with none of its pleasures, or problems, lost. The Fourth Estate foamed over how the supposed push from the Internet failed to fulfill its blockbuster potential, but this doesn’t mean the final product is bad. In fact, this is one of the great guilty pleasures of the last two decades, a dopey action spoof with a lot of humor and a juicy amount of gore.  (25 August, HBO, 8PM EST)

The Grudge 2


As the fortunes of J-Horror slowly fade back into the fad gadget woodwork, here’s an opportunity to see how wrongheaded the genre can go. Trading on the first film’s archetypal narrative – ghost haunts house and causes curse – and moving headliner Sarah Michelle Gellar to cameo status, we get more of the same strictures that eventually killed the up and coming dread category. Sadly, director Takashi Shimizu has signed on for…you guessed it…The Grudge 3. (25 August, Starz, 9PM EST)

 


Sherrybaby


In what many are calling a career defining turn, Secretary/World Trade Center star Maggie Gyllenhaal plays an ex-con trying to reconnect with her young daughter after an extended stay in prison. With the cloud of drugs and abuse constantly shadowing her efforts, the story becomes more than a mere formulaic melodrama. It actually touches on what makes people susceptible to such self-destructive situations. Thanks to her performance, Gyllenhaal finds the truth inside her character’s torment. (25 August, ShowTOO, 8PM EST)

Indie Pick
House of 1000 Corpses


It’s clear from the opening moments of this movie that Zombie recognized the rarity of being able to direct a film. Thousands dream of the chance, yet few if any ever really get it. So as his (conceivably) one and only shot at bringing his love of the horror genre to the screen, this full blown macabre obsessive was going to make every second count. That is why House is so overwhelmingly busy, teeming with ideas, and seismic in its tonal shifts. Zombie more of less filtered his fright Id through an undying love of exploitation fare and forged the kind of reference heavy homage that only equally batshit film fans would adore. From the far too clever casting to the occasional clips from classic terror titles, this is the man’s sinister scrapbook come to life. Granted, a lot of it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially when our sole survivor ends up in the lair of a poorly defined Dr. Satan, but the ride is filled with exceptional individual moments.(30 August, IFC, 10:45PM EST)

Additional Choices


The Human Stain


We expect much more from the three people behind this middling melodrama. Robert Benton is an Oscar winning director (for Kramer vs. Kramer) and noted screenwriter Nicholas Meyer (several of the best Star Treks) had Phillip Roth’s intense novel to work from. Of course, casting can kill you, and that’s basically what happened here. Both Nicole Kidman and Anthony Hopkins don’t work. Once you know the plot, you completely understand why. (26 August, IFC, 9PM EST)

Writer of O


In the ‘60s/‘70s, The Story of O was a scandalous bestseller. It brought the fetish of sadomasochism to the forefront in a way that few factual documents had ever dared. For decades, the identity of the author remained a mystery, cloaked in a veil of ambiguity that suggested some smattering of reality inside all the highly sexualized romance. In the early ‘90s, the truth was finally revealed, and this fascinating documentary followed the fall out.  (27 August, Sundance Channel, 10:30PM EST)

Leonard Cohen: I’m Your Man


Though he’s never had a major hit on his own, several singers and musical pioneers have plumed his catalog for their career highlights. Now the Canadian troubadour gets a celebratory documentary on his life and times, mixing tributes from the rock and roll elite with performances in recognition of his amazing music. Some will find the juxtaposition a tad tenuous, but it’s the sonic statements that end up painting the more valid picture. (28 August, Sundance Channel, 10PM EST)

Outsider Option
2010


Peter Hyams was just asking for trouble. No one takes on the mantle of Stanley Kubrick and comes out clean – just ask Steven Spielberg. Still, after the success of his High Noon in space (Outland) and the vigilante justice joke The Star Chamber, he made a sequel to the seminal 2001 his next project. Granted, original author Arthur C. Clarke had continued the epic journey of the alien monoliths in a series of books, but the cinematic statement made by the original movie seemed too monumental to overcome. Still, Hyams tried, and with the appearance of Keir Dullea as the ‘embodiment’ of missing astronaut Dave Bowman and the original voice of HAL the computer in tow, things seemed stable. Even the advances in special effects helped to sell the sometimes silly storyline. But it was one auteur’s undeniable genius that hampered this production from the get go. It remains the reason the rest of Clarke’s Odyssey books have avoided a big screen adaptation. (29 August, American Movie Classics, 12PM EST)

Additional Choices
Wild at Heart


David Lynch gives us a post-modern Wizard of Oz and then replaces all the recognizable iconography with sex and violence. The surreal story of Sailor and Lula is often heralded as one of the director’s dopier works, and if you go by the more “pharmaceutical” definition of the word, you’d be right. Laura Dern and Nicholas Cage are dynamite, and the visual flourishes used throughout sell the story’s strange designs very well indeed.  (27 August, Indieplex, 11PM EST)

The Graveyard


Yes, it’s another in a long, LONG line of stupid slasher films. Yes, it features the unfathomable premise of a cemetery sitting smack dab next to a summer camp (taxidermy must be one of the arts and crafts), and it offers the standard slack-jawed teens getting killed for reasons of randiness and retardation. So why is SE&L recommending this slop? Because, every once in a while, your aesthetic needs an enema – and this is it. (30 August, Showtime Beyond, 12AM EST)

Erika’s Hot Summer


With a tagline like “She Forced an Entire Lifetime of Passion Into One Lust Filled Summer!”, how can you resist. Back before porn was a slow dial-up connection away, the tempted took their chances on softcore shams like this. Granted, star Merci Montello makes for some damn fine eye candy, and the notion of inherent naughtiness in such a production provides some decent eros. But if you’re looking for the hard stuff, you’ll be ‘doubly’ disappointed. (31 August, Drive In Classics Canada, 9PM EST)

 


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Thursday, Aug 23, 2007


Sometimes, you have to forgive a subject’s more sensational elements. While a documentary is supposed to be, first and foremost, a work of plainspoken truths, there are elements inherent in any exploration that tend to unintentionally glamorize or glorify issues. Take Michael Moore’s recent SiCKO. Sure, people can argue that the filmmaker manipulates situations to satisfy his own, idealized agenda, but when the material is as mangled as the US Health Care system, the reality is always going to override the outrage. It’s a similar problem facing first timer Jason Kohn. Tackling the reign of terror flowing throughout South American stronghold Brazil, a fear based on a fracturing class system, high level political corruption, and a freakish fad of kidnappings for quick cash, he sometimes delivers more histrionics than hard facts. But Manda Bala –translated, “Send a Bullet” – believes whole heartedly in its exotic exposé, and for the most part, it wins us over as well.


Similar to the stance taken directly after 9/11, when antibiotics and duck tape streamed off store shelves (in anticipation of another attack), wealthy Brazilians have taken to tapping into a massive cottage industry of security. We hear tales told by businessmen and big wigs about daily abduction attempts, and as a result, classes in personal protection (including REAL defensive driving) and car bulletproofing are all the rage. They represent a status symbol of sorts, a way to differentiate the important people living in Sao Paolo’s futuristic high rises from the fringe factions metering out a meager living inside the ghetto slums. Kohn connects this Wild West level of criminality with a famous political corruption case. Permanent government fixture Jader Barbalho managed to skim more than 2 BILLION dollars off the top of the Brazilian coffers, thanks in part to a bogus Amazon development fund and a frog farm that functioned as a money laundering scheme. Though hounded by the Courts and the special police task forces, he remains a powerful Teflon titan.


Interspersed throughout this class structure symbolism is the sickening underside of all this body snatching. The desperate criminals, wanting to prove that they mean business, make a habit of chopping of the ears of their victims. It is these souvenirs, along with cruel and condemning notes that figure into every citizen’s nightmares. A famed plastic surgeon, who specializes in ocular reconstruction, explains his burgeoning practice, while an actual victim recounts her maiming at the hands of some heinous cutthroats (it happened during a marathon showing of Alfred Hitchcock films, no less). The final straw suggesting a link between all these situations is an actual sitdown with an authentic abductor. Considering himself a kind of Robin Hood for his shanty town (“when they can’t afford medicine, I buy it for them”) we are supposed to see the connection between poverty’s protection of the gangster, and a failed electorate securing an obviously crooked Congressman’s greed. As long as they keep their people happy, the police will be kept at much more than arm’s length.


Granted, for most of Manda Bala, the links are limited and without context. Kohn prefers to build a puzzle rather that spell everything out, so the first few minutes spent on a slightly disgusting frog farm appear to make no sense. Similarly, our villain is introduced in an offhand, almost slight manner. He’s called a criminal by several people, but it’s not until Kohn explains his failed assistance organization, SUDAM, that we see how horrible Barbalho’s acts really are. Then the tie-in to the amphibian agriculture is established, and things begin to make sense. In essence, Manda Bala wants to view Brazil as an emerging international power, an overpopulated place of possible prosperity riddled with the frequently foul growing pains of any soon to be superpower. Kohn wisely avoids all the culture shock, the abhorrent obsession with beauty (and the surgical manipulation of same), as well as the rampant materialism in the region. Instead, this is a story about immorality of the highest level – between people and people, and citizens and their social structure.


As an apprentice to Errol Morris, Kohn should have recognized that a narrower focus would serve this material well. After all, he stumbled upon a potential superstar in Dr. Avelar. Not afraid to take credit for almost every medical discovery involved in his profession, he represents the best of both narrative worlds. On the one hand, his practice revolves around rebuilding the faces of those kidnapped and scarred. We see, first hand, the kind of scalpel and cartilage miracles he can create. On the other hand, he’s rich, and as a wealthy member of Sao Paolo’s elite, he runs the risk of having himself (or more likely, his family) abducted. So he extols the virtues of his many bodyguards, pimped out – if high profile – car, and his secluded country retreat. In this one character, all the elements the director hopes to discuss in this documentary are present. Instead of trying to manipulate four separate storylines, this one significant player could have provided a fulcrum for a clearer conversation.


Still, Manda Bala is unbelievably effective, the kind of film that gets you wondering when these horrible inhumane practices will finally reach the Northern Hemisphere. While there’s a much greater police presence in the US than in Brazil (a startling statistic states that for the 20 million citizens in Sao Paolo, there is a kidnapping task force of only 800), the abduction tactic is reminiscent of the car jacking craze and home invasion phenomenon of the late ‘90s. It speaks to a brazenness of the new criminal, the kind that sees the end goal without ever once taking into consideration the consequences – legally or ethically. While it may seem silly to say this, most crime prevention is based on the deterrent quality of laws. The theory states that people will tend to avoid felonious acts (especially in cases of murder and drug dealing) because the penalties will be excessive and severe.


But with a clear culture of corruption seeping through all manner of South American society, and a message that states that even the most obvious acts will go unpunished, the opposite is occurring. If politicians can prosper and profit without feeling the pinch of the police, why should the more desperate and dependent care? After all, they have the backing of the vast majority of the population (the poor won’t be traded for cash anytime soon) and with the aforementioned acts of goodwill, they tend to be borough heroes.  Indeed, Kohn argues that the newfangled industries that cater to the wealthy’s nervous needs actually feed into the problem. As the targets become warier of the criminal’s ways, the bad guys switch up and shift their attention. In the end, it’s a vicious cycle that suggests there really is no end in sight.


Even with its occasional faults, Manda Bala does what documentaries do best – illuminate an intellectual or social situation that our otherwise narrow Western viewpoint would never even consider. The visual beauty in the film – Brazil is one of the most inviting looking regions in the entire world – contrasted with the cynical, almost comic approach to the problems, lends to moments of well earned epiphany, as well as frequently flops back into directorial self-indulgence. The story of how the influential of Sao Paolo came to this fraudulent conclusion makes for an incredibly insightful experience. Here’s hoping the eventual reform movement gets as much prescient attention. 



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Wednesday, Aug 22, 2007


Great comedy teams are not ‘born’. They do not arrive from the witticism womb fully formed and ready to rib tickle. No, what all classic clown combos have in common is that elusive amalgamation of talent, identity, characterization, and unholy happenstance. There is a real sense that what is happening is the result of some organic convergence, not the preplanned propositions of a cash hungry studio. Take the Three Stooges for example. Among the many charms exuded by the Howard Brothers (Moe, Curly, and yes even Shemp) and Fine (little old Larry) are split second slapstick timing (talent), easily understood personas (identity), several layers to their lunacy (characterization), and the completely chance arrival at Columbia Pictures when the studio needed a showcase (happenstance). From Laurel and Hardy to Abbot and Costello – heck, even up through Chris Farley and David Spade – the recognizable amusement units don’t take years of development to gel. They either work up front, or never find their footing (right, Ritz Brothers?).


It’s even harder to find examples of this instantaneous ideal in the realm of independent film. The reasons are rather obvious, from lack of true talent to the ability to hone a serious set of skills on a homemade movie budget. Try as they might – and there have been some God awful examples of said lousy attempts – there are only two current outsiders who’ve managed to find the perfect union of personality and performance. One is Justin Channel, responsible for the hilarious horror comedies Raising the Stakes and Die and Let Live. With the flawless funny business from the dynamic duo of Josh Lively and Zane Crosby, this director manages to take genre generics – vampires and zombies, respectively – and turn them into risible rites of teen passage. The other sick savant is Chris Seaver. Working in the brash and the blue long before Apatow remembered to freak his geek on, this ersatz entrepreneur has fashioned his entire Low Budget Pictures universe after a sublime love of schlock and scatology. And as part of his extensive underground oeuvre, he’s also developed one of the greatest cinematic partnerships ever – the sensational sisters Heather and Puggly Bochliadochi.


With origins in previous Seaver films (specifically, 12 Inches of Dangling Fury), the unusual duo became fixtures of the writer/director’s filmmaking around 2005. As part of his look back at high school as a literal Hell, this unhinged auteur combined his love of all things pop culture with a clear eye for the simmering social stigmas among adolescents. He tossed in all his favorite horror riffs, some glorious nods to musical extremes (fantasy metal, anyone) and a running cast of characters meant to give the series instant trademarking and long term replay value. From the first film in the (so far) trilogy, Heather and Puggly Drop a Deuce, to the fascinating follow-ups – Heather and Puggly Crucify the Devil and Heather and Puggly Cock-Block the Apocalypse, Seaver refined and retooled his elements, giving them the kind of reflective cultural mirror that renders them as satisfying satires and terrific time capsules.


The plots all revolve around the students at fictional Bonejack Heights High School (another LBP in-joke). When we first meet the horny Heather and her unbelievably unattractive sister Puggly (played to absolute perfection by longtime company players Meredith Host and Lauren P. Seavage), they are suffering through the typical teen angst. While her bucktoothed sibling gets all the Sappho loving she can handle (yes, she’s a lesbian), the normal looking red head can’t capture any man’s attention. Among the available ‘studs’ are country cuss The Meistro and his “Spanish Indian” sidekick, the prog rock loving Proudfoot. There’s also the jocular Johnny Douchebag (played by Seaver himself) and faux fashionista T-Bone, and later on, competitive ladies men (?) Choach and TeenApe. As they go through the typical scholastic slog, they find themselves facing the standard hormone driven dilemmas. To make matters even more maddening, their close knit camaraderie is constantly challenged by all manner of interpersonal and supernatural interference.



In Drop a Deuce, an alien seductress named Venus gets Puggly to turn on her pals, so that the evil extraterrestrial can kill them off, one by one. It’s up to our heroines to save the day. Naturally, everyone is back and alive for Crucifies the Devil (such is the lovable illogic of the series). This time, old Scratch himself shows up to take on our pert pair, who have now become notorious part-time exorcists. Again, all manner of Hellspawn humor hijinx ensure. Finally, a certain boy wizard and his seven book balderdash get the bad ass Bochliadochi treatment as Bonejack High becomes a rather recognizable academy of advanced magic. There, our returning adolescents go ‘potter’ as they try to stop a rival sorcerer from stealing an enchanted orb destined to destroy the universe. Through a combination of teamwork and tentative incantations, evil is once again destroyed, and our chick champions prove the power of believing in yourself, and the importance of friendship. Sort of.


Right up front, it has to be noted that Seaver is a certified spoof samurai. He’s a sneaky SOB, lobbing his lampoons at the audience with a combination of audacity and affection. Like an intricate game of ‘80s Trivial Pursuit (with only movie, TV, and music questions) played by a pack of undeniable pop geeks, a LPB production is like Superbad without the BFF sentimentality. Seaver is as adept as Apatow and pals at playing the curse word card, but there is no apologizing with this eager fringe filmmaker. When he wants filthy, he goes for the full bore gross out. Not even the infamous Farrelly Brothers are as excessive with the expletive as this deranged director. Seaver is infinitely better at context, however, finding fascinating and fresh ways of making even the most obvious toilet or sex-related gag explode with determined delight. From early hits like Mulva: Zombie Ass Kicker to recent reinventions of his classic characters Bonejack and TeenApe (the defiant Destruction Kings) this is one movie maven who puts his obsessions where his objective is.


In the Heather and Puggly films, the focus is on the awkwardness of adolescence, how rapidly arriving maturity messes up even the most cocksure clique. Without reading much more into it, lets just say that the various demonic and paranormal elements the students have to deal with could easily be made into metaphors for responsibility, love, and the upcoming realities of the real world. Or maybe not. That’s the beauty of a Seaver film – you’re never sure if he’s serious, slack-jawed, or simply sold on his own unbridled and out of control Id. With their diversity of characterization and kitchen sink wit, we definitely need an anchor to hold and LPB production together. That’s where our crackerjack comedic team comes in. By playing off of and against each other (Heather, the henna-headed babe, is outright man repellant, while she-hag Puggly gets all the girl-on-girl action she can handle) and using an undercurrent of sibling rivalry, Seaver lays the foundation for the anarchy to follow.



Oddly enough, the Heather and Puggly films follow the current trend in Tinsel Town tre-quels – Drop a Deuce is a stunning debut, Crucify the Devil is a bonafide classic, and Cock-Block the Apocalypse is good, if not totally great. Each movie is different in that they use varying elements to achieve their sometimes surreal goals. For example, Drop a Deuce offers one of our only glimpses of the rest of the Bochliadochi household. Scream Queen icon Debbie Rochon is absolutely hilarious as the girl’s equally muttly mother, while Punk Rock Holocaust director Doug Sakmann is ridiculously effective as their dithering dad. This higher level of performance is not unusual for an LPB film (Seaver is lucky to have a group of friends and associates who sync up faultlessly with his own bizarre brainpan), but it does lend the movie a sly and supportive signature.


Crucify the Devil is even better, thanks in part to a lively premise and a more complete view of the Heather and Puggly universe. The idea of making the gals into pseudo ghostbusters is classic, as are the calm and comic confrontations with Satan himself. Brad Austin plays the mangoat as a combination bully and henpecked husband, and the scenes at home with his minions are a marvel of bumbling domestic stupidity. As with most of his movies, Seaver loves to ladle on the gore, giving old fashioned fright fans a gallon or two of arterial spray for their money. He also realizes that you can’t have violence without its companion curse – sex - and he laces his dialogue with some of the filthiest, funniest material you’ll hear outside a boy’s locker room. The constant references to pornographic acts, genitalia, and any combination of the two can make for some offensive moments, but if this director has a fault, it’s never knowing when enough is enough. In fact, much of LPB’s inherent charm is its ‘anything and everything’ approach to filmmaking.



Maybe this is why Cock-Block the Apocalypse feels a little less inventive. Going the Harry Potter route is fine, but without the ability to fully realize your aims, the homage feels hampered. Still, Seaver saves it by staying true to what makes Heather and Puggly great. It needs to be mentioned again - Lauren Seavage and Meredith Host are brilliant here. They may be playing variations of their own personalities (though it’s highly doubtful, especially in Ms. Puggly’s case), yet they turn what could be one note novelties into fully realized, and beloved, characters. You want to see more of them onscreen, and actually feel disappointed when they fight and fracture as family and friends. It is easy to envision this pair making the leap to legitimate mainstream cinema. After all, a comedy founded on a mismatched duo who uses their differences as a means of empowerment and achievement sounds like every other buddy comedy of the last two decades. Why the standard male leads can’t be switched out for a harried hosebag and her les-bionic sibling will perhaps always stay a movie biz mystery.


Finally, there’s one thing that makes Seaver and other camcorder creators like Channel, Scott Phillips, or Eric Stanze stand out among other amateur auteurs - a fearless belief in their abilities. There is no doubt in a LBP film, no sense of apprehension or hesitation. Like all great artists, there is a confidence that comes across loud and clear, a belief in what is being spoken and shot. Sometimes it’s dopey. Other times, it’s delightful. It can be crude, calculated, or completely cracked. But the bottom line is that, in a domain literally drowning in wasted wannabes, there is more noticeable talent in a single frame of a Seaver film than in a dozen more derivative efforts. This doesn’t mean that his movies are for everyone. Like a warning sign at the start of a long theme park amusement, movies made by this man are definitely not recommended for pregnant women, people with bad heart conditions, or those whose sense of humor runs to the more Puritanical.



But if you can tolerate tastelessness ala a yet-to-be-weened John Waters, if you aren’t afraid to take a walk on the Super VHS side of cinema, if you’re sick and tired of being beaten over the aesthetic regarding what’s supposed to be funny, innovative, or exciting, then drop that snobbish wet blanket and give Chris Seaver’s sh-art a try. While the Heather and Puggly films may not be the best place to begin your journey (that would remain his Mulva and Filthy McNasty efforts), they definitely represent the kind of craziness he trades in. And if you’re brave enough, you’ll also get a lesson in the unadulteratedly unrefined nature of comedic chemistry. No matter how often a team works together, or how like minded a group is in their unified creative belief, classic duos of delight just can’t be manufactured. They must arrive from a completely unique and naturalistic place. Oddly enough, that’s an accurate description of Chris Seaver, his Low Budget Pictures empire, and the amazing Heather and Puggly films – in a nut(case) shell.


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Tuesday, Aug 21, 2007

We tend to forget how lonely and narrow the craft of songwriting can be, especially in these days of sour re-sampled ‘hits’ and hooks-by-committee creativity. To channel the melodic meaning of the universe through your insights and instruments remains an almost indecipherable creative pursuit. How a single human being can summarize the wealth of individual experience into a three minute collection of chords, words, and aural abstracts often seems like a challenge to cheat God. Only someone with powers as omniscient could forge such a solid sonic pact with both music and meaning. It’s rare, but some of that talent tends to trickle down to people on our planet, giving them inspiration to attempt the evocative expression. It’s these dedicated artists that we find as the focus of this month’s Surround Sound, an installment supporting such a harmonious hypothesis. Whether they’re fictional, factual, or fractured, we are given a privileged glimpse into their way of working, such a snapshot providing proof that, even on Earth, there are definite deities amongst us mere mortals.


Once [rating: 9]


Music is often referred to as the soundtrack to our lives, and for many, it’s a sentiment to be taken literally. We fall in love to a certain song, break up over a privately held tune, and treat all celebrations, losses, and interpersonal struggles as objects for underscoring. It’s a proposal that propels the critically acclaimed “indie musical” Once, a film forged out of the former working relationship between John Carney and Glen Hansard (who were in the Irish rock band The Frames together). Centering on the burgeoning relationship between a street performer and a Czech immigrant flower girl, the celebrated outsider triumph took a non traditional route toward its aural accompaniment. Pre-production found non-actors Hansard and Markéta Irglová (noted professionals in the industry) writing the highly personal soundtrack, both separate and in collaboration. The results ended up reaching across the typical music and lyrics to evoke strong, substantive emotion while also providing the kind of minor key mood that prepares us for all the emotional upheaval that the narrative promises. As is the case with releases like this, context is crucial to gaining the full impact of these songs. But once you’ve heard them, they’re hard to forget – with or without the movie to illuminate them.


A perfect example is the opening track, “Falling Slowly”. Beginning with a graceful guitar signature, and building to a crescendo of expressive singing and intricate piano and string driven instrumentation, the song suggests the start of something doomed, as if fate has already stepped in and clarified the possibilities. It’s a feeling only amplified by the duets, where simple aural implications like “If You Want Me” or “When Your Minds Made Up” say more about Hansard and Irglová than any dialogue could deliver. Toward the middle, our male lead has a pair of palpable high points. “Leave” is the most undemanding break up song ever (even the title suggestion sounds more like a pledge than a plea) while “Trying to Pull Myself Away” is an uptempo effort to convince himself that life post-affair can return to normal. Of course, the lyrics suggest something far more complicated. There are also hints of the long lost troubadours here, the sonic semblance of “All The Way Down” to “Pink Moon” era Nick Drake being rather obvious. By the time we reach the title track, we’re hoping for the kind of clear cut catharsis that such a storyline seems to suggest. Instead, we become lost in the apparent ennui, freed only by Hansard’s fabulous finale “Say It To Me Now”. From a whisper to a scream it sells Once as a fabulous and fresh reinvention of a typically tired genre.


You’re Gonna Miss Me [rating: 8]


As an audience member, we rarely get to witness a musician’s mental breakdown through their songs. Instead, the manipulative minds behind the performer’s career tend to tweak out the bad stuff, leaving behind an incomplete portrait without all the sonic shadings. In the case of psychedelic bluesman Roky Erickson, however, the shift was sudden, severe, and very, very public. Before anyone could get him the help he needed, he lost both his audience and his mind. It wasn’t until he hit that most horrible of clichés –rock bottom – that he could pull himself out of his psychotic stresses. In his prime, however, he was like a combination of Syd Barrett and Daniel Johnston with a persona heavy on the weird acid casualty side of ideas. The change manifested itself aurally, as Erickson went from writing normal tunes about love and loss with the seminal 13th Floor Elevators to converting the voices in his head into epic audio tirades against unseen demons, goblins, and ghosts. It’s a path that we can follow, thanks to Kevin McAlester and his in depth documentary, as well as this stellar soundtrack album accompanying it. Covering Erickson’s entire career (including some heretofore unheard demos), we see how a damaged brain can become an even more messed up muse.


The two 13th Floor tracks – the recognizable hit that gives the work its title, and “Fire Engine” - argue that our hero wasn’t functioning on all six cylinders to begin with. The later track specifically sounds like a failed Brian Wilson SMiLE cut crammed into The Beatles “Revolution #9”. It definitely prepares us for the worst yet to come. What’s surprising, though, are the pre-problematic cuts where Erickson comes off like a solid Me Decade arena rocker. In fact, his new band (the Aliens) could easily be called Blue Oyster Occult. Genius works like “Bloody Hammer” and “Two Headed Dog (Red Temple Prayer)” appear cogent at first. But then the increasingly surreal lyrics start creeping in, and before we know it, efforts like “Mine, Mine, Mind” and “It’s a Good Night for Alligators” lose us. Thankfully, the compilation compensates for these obviously arcane riffs, referencing Erickson in his more introspective period (the poignant “You Don’t Love Me Yet”) and insightful (the calm, acoustic protest “Unforced Peace”). By the end of the album, our troubled soul has more or less returned to his senses, singing the heartbreaking and brittle “Goodbye Sweet Dreams”. Unlike other musicians whose minds snapped, time and treatment appear to have brought him back – at least, part way. With a collection of creative shout outs like this, it’s a well earned return.


Kurt Cobain About a Son [rating: 7]


Sometimes, it’s easier to look outside, to an artist’s sphere of influences, rather than reflect on the same three album canon over and over again – especially when financial issues like copyright and residuals conspire to mess with your options. For his documentary about the Nirvana icon, filmmaker AJ Schnack (creator of the brilliant They Might Be Giants deconstruction, Gigantic) drew on the numerous sonic references the troubled artist relied on to create his inappropriately labeled ‘grunge” dynamic. In fact, aside from Steve Albini’s overriding desire to distort all guitars, Cobain was a pop songwriter forced to conform to the needs of the scene (Seattle in the ‘90s) and the rock merchandisers (who rightly saw punk’s potential rebirth). He was also indebted to standard ‘70s cockrock, as well as the harsh hardcore subgenre that swept the West Coast of his adolescence. Without using a single note of the man’s amazing oeuvre, and avoiding the more obvious bands (The Pixies) namechecked in interviews, the slightly off center portrait painted is one of a DIY devotee who also enjoyed reflecting on the medium’s previous dinosaur stance. Together, with minor snippets from the audio interviews with Kobain that form the basis for the film, the imagination that drove this determined musician slowly comes into view.


The soundtrack begins on an ephemeral note, where one of the few original pieces – an ambient like drone by Steve Fisk and Benjamin Gibbard – sets the melancholy mood. It prepares us for something more introspective than extroverted. Oddly, this isn’t supported by the next track, the weird inclusion of the Arlo Guthrie novelty “The Motorcycle Song”. Perhaps within the context of the film it works. Here, it’s a glaring sonic stunt. More in tune with our expectations is “Eye Flys” from Cobain faves Melvins. As a simple bass line loops and lunges, fuzzy guitars ‘buzz’ in the background. After almost five minutes, a groove is set and the singer steps in. The lyrics suggest the sort of mental fever dreams the late poet played with. In quick succession, the brilliant Bad Brains prove why they were “Banned in DC”, while the usually atonal Half Japanese go bubblegum with their jaunty “Pour Some Sugar On It”. By the time The Vaselines arrive to offer up their cryptic ear candy (“Son of a Gun”, a great track), the image of Cobain as a craftsman is clear. He channeled all his loves – Iggy Pop, David Bowie, Leadbelly, all present – into an intriguing amalgamation of personal primal scream and amiable AM radio. He had as much in common with the Butthole Surfers (represented by “Graveyard”) as he did with fellow scene stealers Mudhoney (“Touch Me, I’m Sick”). Even highly specialized tastes like Scratch Acid (represented by the arcane “Owner’s Lament”) make perfect sense within this decibel dynamic.



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